Saturday, January 29, 2011

Comparativism and translations

I already dedicated a post in Italian on this issue, but I recently read an enlightening passage by Bimal Krishna Matilal:

[A]nybody who wants to explain and systematically translate an Indian philosophical text in a European language will, knowingly or unknowingly, be using the method of comparative philosophy.

(Logic, Language and Reality, 1985, p. 78)

Hence, since it is unavoidable, we should better do it knowingly, in order to make our pre-judices explicit to the reader. On translations, see also some other recent posts, such as this one.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Addendum on the purpose of translations

A quote from Michel Angot's Introduction to his translation of the Nyāyabhāṣya:
Quant à nous, notre but n'est pas de traduire, mais de comprendre et de faire comprendre des textes comme les Nyāya-Sūtra et Bhāṣya dans le contexte où ils furent composés.

(as for me, my purpose is not to translate, but to understand and make other people understand texts such as the Nyāyasūtra and the Bhāṣya, in the context in which they have been composed).

I would not subscribe to the ambition of understanding a text "in the context in which it has been composed", since I am more interested in the more realistic effort of understanding a text's fortune and tradition, but I deeply appreciate Angot's stress on understanding vs. translating. More on this subject here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why writing summaries?

After having hated epitomes and having strongly desired to read only the work of "great minds", in the last 5 years I feel more and more attracted to less pre-eminent figures, the ones which made a concrete difference although in a worldly sense. In fact, why is Socrates much more important than any other Greek teacher who did not write down his teachings? Because of his genial scholar, Plato, but also, and maybe even more, because of a succession of anonymous readers and copysts who decided that his work was important, deserved to be studied, read, commented upon. These people wrote about Socrates in their letters, made other people aware of the importance of knowing his thought, etc. Plato alone, with all his genius, could not have done all the taks.

In Indian thought, I hence started working on late Mīmāṃsā authors. Then, on late Nyāya ones. Then, on the very general topic of the re-use of previous textual material… In general, I now enjoy reading the kind of introductory works we all read as textbooks well before reading the great minds' works. Whoever wrote these books (in India: the Arthasaṅgraha, the Tarkasaṅgraha, the Mīmāṃsānyāyaprakāśa, the Sāhityadarpaṇa, the Laghusiddhāntakaumudī and so on) had to chose (probably without even being aware of that) what was worthy of being learnt first and what not.

One of this examples is the Nyāyakālikā (NK), a short treatise introducing to the basic categories of Indian logic (Nyāya). It has been attributed to Jayanta Bhaṭṭa and, if this were the case, then Jayanta would have been among the first authors writing easier summaries for beginners. I started reading it with two colleagues (A. Graheli and D. Cuneo) and we often notice overlappings between the terminology of the NK and of Jayanta's opus magnum, the Nyāyamañjarī (NM). This is no conclusive evidence, since the NK might have been composes by someone who decided to write a summary of the NM partially re-using its terminology.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Again on sound

A Mīmāṃsaka has a powerful device against the Vaiśeṣika claim that śabda (linguistic sound) is momentary. In fact, we do communicate and communication presupposes that we know what is said and this would not be the case unless we already knew the śabda our discussants utter. Hence, śabda must be fix.

What has, then, the burden of explaining changes in accent, lenght, tone, etc.? An easy way-out would be to distinguish between word (śabda) and sound (nāda) and to say that only the latter changes accordingly. But this duality may be too metaphysical for a down-to-earth pragmatist. Hence, Rāmānujācārya (I am not sure about how frequent this idea was among Mīmāṃsakas) suggests instead that it is only the manifestatory (phonetic) effort which varies, thus making the permanent śabda appear slightly different.

Can a word imply a relation?

Is there no way out but exclusion as the meaning of a word? What else could a word denote? A substance? A relation?
Dignāga discuss this problem in the apoha section of his Pramāṇasamuccaya, and so thus his commentator Jinendrabuddhi in his ṭikā thereon (which I had the pleasure to read in a Seminar lead by Helmut Krasser, see here). In the text, an objector suggests that the word might denote a particular (viśeṣya) insofar as it is qualified by something else (a viśeṣaṇa). In this way, one would avoid the fallacy of the word's denoting an individual (which would lead to the paradoxical need of a single word for every single individual and, hence, to the impossibility of communicating at all). When one hears "blue", explains the objector, one immediately expects an integration telling us how much blue it is (blue, bluer or bluest?/nīla, nīlatara or nīlatama?). In the same way, once one hears "existing" (sat), one expects "a pot" or "a cloth" to further qualify this "existing".
But Dignāga holds that either the example does not apply (as explained in a previous post, see here) or that even if it could apply to the case of blue, it would still not apply to the case of what is "existing". In fact, in the case of blue, its degrees are obviously part of it, and hence they can be "expected" as a qualification of it. On the other hand, "a pot" does not share the same universal (jāti) as "existing" and in order to have the former qualify the latter one would be forced to postulate an over-ranking universal above them –which cannot be the case, since it would lead to a regressus ad infinitum. (On this point, see also Sujanasi's interesting comments to the post referred to above.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

God and Atheists

An interesting, though unspelt, innovation of post-classical Mīmāṃsā is the introduction of theistic (specifically: Vaiṣṇava) attitudes within the originally atheist Mīmāṃsā.
Śabara, Kumārila, Prabhākara and their immediate commentators (such as Uṃveka Bhaṭṭa, Pārthasārathi Miśra, Śālikanātha Miśra) seem to be consistent in their denial of any god. Kumārila's Ślokavārttika displays an opening verse (maṅgala), which seems to praise Śiva but has been interpreted by his commentator, Pārthasārathi Miśra, as praising the sacrifice, yajña. Pārthasārathi himself opens his Śāstradīpikā with a maṅgala in praise of Mukuṇḍa, which has no connection with the rest of the text and could even be suspected to be a later addition. Śālikanātha and Bhavanātha only praise their "guru", Prabhākara. In their subcommentaries, on the other hand, maṅgalas in praise of one's iṣṭadevatā begin to flourish. A little bit later still, Mīmāṃsā seems to acquire a strong Vaiṣṇava connotation. Mahādeva Vedāntin conforms to this tendency with a maṅgala Rāma at the beginning of the MNS and several works of Vaiṣṇava flair (a commentary on the Viṣṇusahasranāma section of the Mahābhārata and on the Rāmasahasranāmastotra). Interestingly, this theistic background never affects the Mīmāṃsā content. This may depend on the technical nature of many Mīmāṃsā topics, but perhaps also on the distinction implicitly driven by many authors between one's emotional relation to a personal God and one's philosophical engagement against the necessity of a god as one's logical foundation. If the two attitudes are not just incidentally co-existing in a single personality, one might suggest that the denial of any logical necessity of such a basis is perhaps in itself the presupposition for a purely emotional relation to God.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Purpose of translations

What is the purpose of a translation? It could be either meant to make the text understandable in itself or to offer a path within the original text. The first option is the one implicitly adopted by most translations of Western texts into Western languages, but it presupposes some common background in order to be viable. On the other hand, the second option is the rule in most Indian and Western translations of Indian texts, which sound often awkward and display an unfamiliar English (or German, etc.). Be it explicit or not, their purpose is not to offer to the reader an independent text, but rather an easier path within the Sanskrit text. One reads them along the Sanskrit text and can, hence, better understand its syntax, avoid looking for the meaning of unusual words and so on. However, one does not use the translation as an independent text and one keeps on thinking in terms of hetu and dharmin, or of bodhicitta and upāyakauśalya. The technical translations of these terms (and of many others) immediately recall their Sanskrit original and often this recollective power is favoured by translators over the English (or German, etc.) shade of meaning. A well-known example is that of vyāpti (already discussed in this blog) translated as ``pervasion", although such translation runs the risk to convey the idea that the pervader (vyāpaka) is of smaller size than the pervaded (vyāpya). In such cases, the translation has, hence, the role a basic commentary had for Sanskrit students. It paves them the way into the text and it has no independent value. In order to do that, it is often more a metaphrase than a paraphrase, as it has already been the case with Tibetan translations of Sanskrit texts.

In sum, an independent translation of a Sanskrit text into a Western language is hardly possible, unless in selected topics, where scholars have already developed a common background (perhaps, some branches of linguistics or logic). Hence, if I am not wrong in this analysis, translators are bound to write a translation which plays the role of a basic commentary. However, basic commentaries are hardly enough to fill the cultural gap between today's readers and the Sanskrit authors. Hence, many translators have decided to add extensive footnotes, a line-to-line commentary, a separate commentary or a long introduction to the texts they were translating. Personally, I tend to write a separate commentary in the form of a long introduction because I am afraid that too long footnotes may hinder one's reading too much. Moreover I hope that the long commentary might provide the reader with the common background which will enable her to read the translation as if it were an independent text.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Universal problems

What is the meaning of a word? It must be something recurring in all instances of usage of that word. But what is this recursive thing? And in what does it recur? In Indian philosophy, direct realists (such as Vaiśeṣikas or Mīmāṃsakas) answer that it recurs in concrete substances, whereas Buddhist epistemologists may maintain that there is no outer referent and that all we can say is that something must recur in all usages of a certain word.

Today I had the pleasure to join Helmut Krasser's group working on the critical edition of Jinendrabuddhi's commentary on Dignāga's Pramāṇasamuccaya, section on apoha (PS V).
The chief-question is "What is the meaning of a word?" This must be something recurring in all instances of usage. Could it be a substance itself? Evidently not, since it must recur in individual substances and a substance cannot recur in other substances (nānyasmin dravye [dravyam] vartate, PSV 5.10d). On the other hand, what in fact recurs in all the instances of usage of the word "blue", might be "blueness" (nīlatva). But this cannot be the word-meaning.
Why? Maybe because of the general problem of universals (sāmānya or jāti), which has been recently very nicely described in Kataoka 2010e (A critical edition of Bhaṭṭa Jayanta's Nyāyamañjarī: Jayanta's view on jāti and apoha), p. 65.
In fact, everyone agrees that there cannot be a universal of a universal (jāter ajātitaḥ, PS V, 11a), although the relation among universals (see Kataoka's image, on the right) is quite similar to the relation among individuals. Hence, why denying the former and accepting the latter?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sound in Vaiśeṣika

In his Tantrarahasya, (III.2), the Mīmāṃsaka Rāmānujācārya discusses with a Vaiśeṣika opponent about śabda. The Vaiśeṣika maintains that the phonetic effort produces śabda (which is, for him, tantamount to ``sound"), whereas the Mīmāṃsaka siddhāntin rebutts that effort only manifests śabda (=``language"). R. has the Vaiśeṣika claim that something can be manifested in three ways and that neither of them applies to the phonetic effort. The three ways are nicely distinguished from each other:

  1. removal of an obstacle between the sense-faculty and its object
  2. an improvement (saṃskāra) of the sense-faculty grasping the object
  3. an improvement (saṃskāra) of the object

The first option is easily ruled out: since śabda is said by Vaiśeṣikas to be a quality of ether, it must inhere in it. Hence, there cannot ever be an obstacle between them.

The rebuttals of the second and of the third option seem less straightforward. An improvement of the sense-faculty, the Vaiśeṣika says, can occur either through the hearing-sense's being filled with the air pushed forwards by the speaker, or through its contact with it. Both cases, he continues, would suit also the thesis that śabda is produced, ``because śabda is a characteristic of ether and the hearing organ is made of ether". This short explanation does not seem to explain very much. Possibly, the Vaiśeṣika means that it is difficult to explain how could the all-pervading ether be `improved' by air in the ear, since ether has no parts. In the parallel Nyāyaśuddhi text, Śālikanātha drives a parallel with the case of sight, where the improvement of the sense-faculty consists in ``the eyes' ray's being filled with light" (ālokena […] āpyāyanaṃ cākṣuṣasya raśmeḥ). This is not possible in the case of ether and air coming from the speaker's abdomen, since ether has no parts which could be connected with it. Moreover, if it were possible, then the hearing organ would be improved once for all possible śabdas. Śālikanātha (a 9th c. Prābhākara philosopher) explains that the improvement of the sense-faculty could be twofold:
  • either through removal of an hindrance, such as when one opens one's eye (and this cannot be the case, since the possibility of an obstacle to inherence has already been ruled out),
  • or through the sense-faculty's being filled by something, as in the example discussed above.
Rāmānujācārya states, instead, that the hearing organ can either be improved through being filled with air, or through a contact with it. Both options are ruled out with the same synthetic statement quoted above.

Rāmānujācārya further adds, possibly for the sake of exhaustiveness, the option of the object's being improved. He has then the Vaiśeṣika rule it out as follows: ``[this would amount to] a quality of the content (viṣaya), and this cannot be. There is as a matter of fact no relationship of the internal air with a quality of ether. Even if it would be possible in some way, it would be shared also by the point of view of production (utpatti). Because it has been seen that also a relation can be, indirectly (paraṃparā), produced". This explanation points to the oddity of the relation between air and a quality of ether. However, if one juxtaposes it to the one read above, about the oddity of the relation of the partless ether with air, one is struck by the fact that no rationale explanation seems to be left to the Vaiśeṣika himself to explain how can an effort push forth air and by means of that produce a quality of ether. Does the Vaiśeṣika mean that the effort produces a quality of ether, namely śabda and, beside that, it pushes forth air?
Not exactly, since the Vaiśeṣika claims rather that the effort produces the movement of the air and that this movement produces a quality of ether, sound.

Monday, January 10, 2011


One of my New-Year's resolutions is to delegate more. Why?
  1. Because I have too many ideas and my life is too short to have them all realised.
  2. Because my ideas trigger me: they want to be realised and do not accept to be buried with me.
  3. Because I learn a lot through other people. Delegating someone I will learn through the way she does what I asked her to do.
  4. Because delegating challenges me and the person I delegate. It gives us both a chance of growth.
  5. Because team-work is funnier (this, I admit, does not apply to everyone).

And, more specifically:

  • Because within Indian philosophy no concrete goal can be achieved by me alone. I will not be able to make Indian philosophy accessible to a more general audicence, not to speak of making it part of Philosophy tout-court, or to make some significant philosophical steps in the direction of our commitment for preserving the world's inhabitants.
Do these points apply to you? Any good reason NOT to delegate?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The insidies of an adverb: mātra

I already dedicated a post to Sanskrit Syntax. In this one I shall focus on the word mātra. At the end of a compound, where it is mostly found, this can mean either "generally" or "only".
For instance,
1. Rāmānujācārya, in his Tantrarahasya, forth book, states that the exhortative suffixes (liṅādipratyaya) designate kāryamātra, that is, "what has to be done in general", whereas one automatically adds to it the further connotation of being an instrument apt to realise a desired result.
2. Mahādeva Vedāntin, in his Mīmāṃsānyāyasaṅgraha (wonderfully edited for the first time by Jim Benson) states that the suffix -tvā in gerunds means pūrvakālamātra, that is, "only a previous time [and nothing else]", thus implicitly pointing out that it does not express an immediate sequence (the finite verb connected to the gerund needs not express an action taking place immediately after that of the gerund; it is enough for it to take place sometime after it).

There are, unluckly enough, also controversial cases, such as the following one (from Mīmāmṣānyāyasaṅgraha, 1.1.3, p. 52 in Benson's edition), where an objector states that there is no point in investingating on the means of knowledge (direct perception, inference, etc.):

mānamātreṇa meyasiddher na parīkṣyaṃ mānam

The latter part certainly means: "Because the knowable objects are established, the means of knowledge should not be investigated upon". But through what are the knowable objects established? Either "through the means of knowledge only" or "through the means of knowledge in general". In the first case, the whole sentence would mean that, since there is no other access to the knowable objects, there is no point in investigating on the means of knowledge and I personally tend to favour this interpretation. However, the learned editor and translator of this work, proposes, instead, the following translation: "Since all the objects of valid knowledge are established by the means of valid knowledge generally, the means need not be examined (here)". And explains the "generally" in a footnote: "I.e., anything that is recongnized as a means of valid knowledge serves to establish the existence of objwcts of valid knowledge. This includes vedic injunctions and prohibitions" (p. 327).

Monday, January 3, 2011

Identifying quotations and making readers aware of them

As many readers know (for newcomers, see here), I am deeply interested in the topic of the re-usal of previous textual materials by Indian authors and hope to be able to collect essays dealing with case studies of this usage in various śāstras. A further output of the project should be the elaboration of a common way to mark re-used textual materials. Until now, such materials are often marked in different ways according to the scholars identifying them (e.g. with "cf." or "=" or just the indication of the source). Ernst Steinkellner (Methodological Remarks on the Constitution of Sanskrit Texts from the Buddhist Pramāṇa-Tradition, WZKS 1988) elaborated a proposal for their classification (using symbols such as Ce, Cee, Re), but his method did not gain general acceptance and it has been criticised by many scholars because of its evaluative character. In fact, saying that a certain author, e.g., Kumārila, has "cited" a passage "out of" a certain work, e.g., Dignāga's Pramāṇasamuccaya (Ce) implies that Kumārila was aware of what he was doing. However, it is often the case that an author cites by hearsay, or that both the attestations of the passage drive from a third, unknown source. Last, chronology is far from being settled in Indian philosophy and it is likely the case that we will find out that, e.g., it is not Dharmakīrti who quoted from Bhāvya but rather the opposite. And everything gets even more complicated while dealing with anonymous texts, apographs or religious texts. These latter texts, in fact, extensively re-use previous ones but are often themselves the result of several generations of "authors". More generally, the judgement about who quoted whom is in fact in many cases less smooth than at first sight expected.
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